The profanity debate

Bush's use of the A-word was everywhere online, while newspapers wrote around the slur.

By Anthony York - Alicia Montgomery
September 6, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)
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Those who fret over nastiness on the networks should take heart at the mostly dainty coverage that followed George W. Bush's calling New York Times scribe Adam Clymer a "major league asshole" in front of an unexpectedly open mike at a Labor Day rally. While everyone referenced the gaffe, most major media also provided a fig leaf. Web scribes, however, were not so kind.

With the exception of Fox, all the major television news networks bleeped out "asshole" when running clips of the Bush gaffe. "It is our policy not to air profanity. We determined the word could be offensive to some viewers and acted accordingly," said ABC "World News Tonight" spokeswoman Jenny Parker. Officials from CBS, CNN and NBC said roughly the same thing. A few hours after CBS anchor Dan Rather finished with the news, however, network mate David Letterman's "Late Show" ran the clip with a modified beep. "We could use the 'ass,' but not the 'hole,'" said "Late Show" representative Kim Izzo.


Reuters went whole hog in its story: "Bush was unaware his microphone was live when he leaned over to his running mate, Dick Cheney, at a Labor Day rally in Naperville, Ill., and said: 'There's Adam Clymer, major league asshole from The New York Times.' The Associated Press, however, refused to print the naughty word.

"Asshole" was everywhere. Salon used it in its headline, as did the Drudge Report. Slate's Timothy Noah and Michael Brus used the epithet, adding that Clymer missed his opportunity to wear it as a badge of honor. MSNBC opted for "ass-" but provided a video clip for everyone to hear for themselves.

Newspapers generally refrained from printing the expletive. The Washington Post's media critic, Howard Kurtz wrote: "Television was all over the earth shattering news: Bush calling a New York Times reporter a bad name." The item was deleted completely from the New York Times' electronic edition. In the print editions Tuesday, the Campaign Briefing section led with an item headlined "Disparaging a reporter." Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican nominee, leaned over to his running mate, Dick Cheney, and used an obscenity to describe a New York Times correspondent, Adam Clymer, who was there. But the item was strangely absent from the Times' online edition.


USA Today provides an audio clip in their online edition, while opting for the more staid "disparaging remark" and "profanity" descriptions of the incident in print.

Surprisingly, the scrupulously polite National Public Radio didn't let Bush's "asshole" swipe scare them. NPR aired the Bush clip during its "Morning Edition" program without a beep. "Our thinking was that people have heard a whole lot worse, most recently with the Clinton-Lewinsky mess," said Susan Feeney, senior editor of "Morning Edition." "There are a lot of other words I can think of that would cause us concern, and this wasn't one of them," she concluded.

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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George W. Bush